Al Jazeera Thrust Into Center of Deepening Arab Diplomatic Storm

ROME – As tensions mount between Qatar and the Arab world’s top powers, pan-Arabic broadcaster Al Jazeera, by far the most-watched news outlet in the region, is increasingly being thrust into the center of a diplomatic storm.

The Qatar-based satellite news network was banned this week by several neighboring countries, which also blacked out the sports channels of its closely affiliated beIN Media Group. To make matters worse, Al Jazeera is bearing the brunt of systematic cyberattacks “to all systems,” it said Thursday.

There is even speculation that the state-funded broadcaster could be shuttered in order to appease the crisis.

On Monday, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar, citing its alleged support for Islamic terrorists and Iran. Libya’s eastern-based government and the Maldives subsequently joined the fray.

Almost immediately, Saudi Arabia shut down Al Jazeera’s bureau in Riyadh, revoking its broadcasting licence, and Jordan followed suit. Activists stormed the news agency’s bureau in East Jerusalem demanding its closure, according to Reporters Without Borders, which called Al Jazeera a “collateral victim of [the] diplomatic offensive against Qatar.”

The current anti-Al Jazeera wave has rippled as far away as Australia, where detractors called on the Australian Broadcasting Corp. to pull its daily two-hour Al Jazeera English service, calling it Islamic propaganda.

While some observers contend that Al Jazeera’s Arabic news service has on occasion manifested a pro-Islamist bent and shown sympathy for the Muslim Brotherhood, the journalistic integrity of its separately run English-language counterpart, which is aired in more than 100 countries, has rarely come into question.

In a statement this week, Al Jazeera noted that access to its channels and websites in the Arab world has been blocked in the past and vowed to “continue to cover the news and current affairs from the region and beyond in a balanced and objective manner.”

Meanwhile, Al Jazeera journalist Faisal Edroos said on Twitter that one of the conditions being set by Saudi Arabia for mending fences with Qatar was “ceasing the broadcast of the Al Jazeera news channel.”

But that is not likely to happen, several analysts say.

“I don’t see Qatar dropping Al Jazeera,” says Constantinos Papavassilopoulos, a senior analyst at London-based IHS Markit. “For them cutting down or totally dismantling Al Jazeera would be like losing sovereignty.”

Furthermore, the tiny emirate, which is less famous than the TV network it funds, is also on track to host the 2022 soccer World Cup.

“How are they going to host it without having a big expensive media network to support this effort?” Papavassilopoulos said.

Sports are the content cornerstone of Al Jazeera sister company beIN Media Group, which holds exclusive Middle East rights to most major global sports events, including the Olympics and the World Cup.

BeIN subscribers in the UAE and Saudi are currently miffed that the pay-TV service was suddenly pulled a few days ago by local telecom operators Etisalat and du.

BeIN has operations in more than 40 countries, including France, the U.S., and Turkey where it owns the country’s top pay-TV operator Digiturk. Turkey has signaled its support for Qatar.

BeIN also owns Miramax, which it acquired in 2016.  The rift at this stage is not expected to impact the Santa Monica-based U.S. studio, which is being relaunched by new CEO Bill Block.

Some pundits expect the Arab crisis to subside soon, thanks to moves to ease tensions now underway, including by the U.S. State Department. In an op-ed piece, veteran Middle East reporter David Hearst noted that Qatar, whose population is smaller than Houston’s, has a sovereign wealth fund worth $335 billion.

“It is the largest producer of natural gas in the Middle East. It has a relationship with Exxon. The Saudis and Emiratis are not the only players in Washington,” Hearst wrote.

“If it’s just a few weeks, or even a couple of months, the impact on all the [media] players will not be that significant,” Papavassilopoulos said.

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